A bitter feud between two South Korean video game developers has exploded and resulted in not just legal threats and copyright notices, but in police raids and a bizarre attempt to exonerate oneself by using artificial intelligence.
The story begins in July 2021. An individual, identified only as Leader A, was an employee of the game development company Nexon, where he was the lead developer for a new role-playing game tentatively named P3.
However, according to Nexon, they learned that Leader A, who had been working from home due to the pandemic, had been leaking, “thousands of files including the source codes and builds, mostly related to project development,” to an outside server that Leader A owned.
Leader A was joined by roughly half of the team working on P3 as they left the company and joined a different studio, Ironmace, in October 2021. Nexon, for its part, opted to alter the P3 project and take it in a different direction.
Meanwhile, Leader A and Ironmace set out to create their own version of a P3-style game and began development on a title that would become known as Dark and Darker. However, even as development was starting on the game, Nexon was working with the police in an effort to investigate Leader A’s alleged code theft.
However, when the police turned the case over to prosecutors in August 2022, the prosecutor said that more evidence was needed. This led to a police raid against Ironmace earlier this month.
According to Ironmace, the process was very routine with the police coming in and checking but finding nothing. They said the process went quickly and will pose no issues for development.
Also in August 2022, Ironmace released Dark and Darker onto Steam’s early access program, so users could help test the game out. The game, at one point, reached over 100,000 simultaneous users.
However, last week the game was removed from Steam following a copyright infringement notice sent by Nexon. Currently, the game is not available on Steam, though Ironmace has said that they are working with their legal team to get the game restored as quickly as possible.
But that removal then led to perhaps the strangest turn in this case: Ironmace turning to AI to try and prove that it didn’t infringe.
The move came via a lengthy post on Reddit detailing how the game was made. However, as part of that the developers asked ChatGPT to “come up with a description for a generic PvP Dungeon Crawling game” and the bot produced a six-paragraph description of a typical game in that genre.
According to Ironmace, this proves that the shared elements between the two games are “easily explained by conventions found commonly in the share game genres” and is proof that Ironmace did not infringe.
As such, Iromace says, “It is difficult to believe that Nexon, in good faith, could reasonably believe that Ironmace has infringed on the copyrights for their P3 project.”
In the meantime, Dark and Darker remains unavailable on steam and both a lawsuit between the two companies and the police investigation are ongoing.
It’s a bizarre chapter in a long, winding story that is still very much under way. But one question remains: What was the point of asking the AI?
A Bizarre Tale, A Strong Defense
To be clear, the conversation with ChatGPT is completely pointless and, ultimately, serves to distract from Ironmace’s defense.
Though, according to Ironmace, Nexon did mention the “concept, genre, and plot” as similarities between the two games, that is not the meat of the allegations.
The bulk of the dispute centers around Leader A and allegations that he either used code or other assets from P3 in Dark and Darker. Any similarities between the two based upon the genre would easily be understood by anyone with knowledge of the field. However, such similarities aren’t likely to be protectable under copyright anyway as they are ideas, not specific expressions of those ideas.
It’s the code and other assets that are most protectable and, there, Ironmace does put up a strong defense. They say that Leader A was given permission to use his personal server and that the issue with that only began after he expressed frustration with his job.
Looking to the alleged similarities between the two games, Ironmace has said they have additional evidence that they will release soon, but that, of the 2,338 resources with identical names Nexon identified, all but 1,032 were due to the games being based on the same third-party engine.
Of those 1,032, 950 were due to identical store-bought assets being used, and the remaining 82 were actually 41 files with two different extensions each. In those cases, the use of the same names came down to either coincidence or just logical names for the files to be.
Ironmace has said that they will provide additional evidence, including access to their Git version control repository and access to concept art.
As such, even if the ChatGPT section was purely for a joke (as one commenter suggested) it’s a distraction from an otherwise fairly robust defense.
But regardless of the outcome, this is a battle that could have and likely should have been avoided.
A Predictable Fight, Unpredictable Outcome
Even though no one could have predicted the strange twists and turns that this case has taken, the fact that there is one is wholly predictable.
Leader A was the head of development for the game P3. Regardless of whether any actual rules were broken, the terms under which he left Nexon were not good, and taking half of the game’s team with him only exacerbates any ill feelings on Nexon’s side.
To go from that to work on a very similar game literally invites controversy. Even if Ironmace is correct, and they worked in a cleanroom environment with no code or assets being shared between them, they used similar purchased assets, the same engine and did so in a bid to create a very similar title. Even if no infringement took place, it’s easy to see why Nexon would believe that there had been.
However, that’s not to say that Ironmace did anything wrong here, either. They absolutely have the right to make a game similar to P3, and they are correct that concepts and ideas are not protectable by themselves. It’s very possible, even likely, that they did not infringe or do anything unethical or illegal.
What went wrong is that one or both sides missed an opportunity to resolve this issue in its infancy. Back in 2021, one or both sides failed to put in the work to prevent this issue from spilling over. Now it’s been the result of police investigations, a DMCA takedown and at least one lawsuit.
Why that happened is impossible to say, and both sides likely feel that they were being reasonable back then. However, this is a dispute that never should have gotten anywhere near this far. The fact that it did requires that one or both sides go to great lengths to escalate it.
Ultimately, that’s not good for anyone. Because, in a case like there, there are no real winners.
Both sides in this case are claiming that they have been wronged. Nexon seems certain that their former employee took copyright-protected work from them and used it to help with the development of Dark and Darker. Ironmace, for their part, feels like they are being harassed simply because they were able to lure both that developer and other P3 developers away.
But ethics aside, there is a pragmatic element here. Not only is this battle ridiculously expensive to both sides, but neither company comes out of this looking better. Ironmace will always have this cloud of uncertainty over the game and Nexon, especially to fans of Dark and Darker, appears to be a bully.
No one is gaining in this fight and even if damages are awarded and the legal dispute reaches a conclusion, it’s unlikely to repair the damage done along the way.
For both Nexon and Ironmace, this case is a distraction from what they are both supposed to be doing: Developing video games.
While conflicts are unavoidable, there’s almost never a situation where allowing them to reach this point is in anyone’s interest.
In the end, it doesn’t always matter who is wrong and who is right, not when both sides end up being much worse because of the fight.